Wage theft: the crime wave we can no longer afford to ignore

Employers are stealing money from workers' pockets and nothing is being done about it.

While conservative governments are constantly making calls to criminalise trade union activities, governments should instead be focusing on the real crime wave occurring in our community right now.

Across industries, employers are regularly stealing from their employees — and the rate of theft has reached epidemic proportions. No industry is exempt: it is happening in the retail, hospitality, not-for-profit, manufacturing and construction sectors, just to name a few.

According to the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU): “Wage theft, through employers deliberately underpaying workers and refusing to pay mandatory superannuation, is affecting thousands of workers every year.

“It is employers stealing money from workers' pockets,” and nothing is being done about it.

We are not talking small amounts of money.

According to Jim Stanford, from the Centre for Future Work at The Australia Institute, each year about $116 billion worth of labour time is uncompensated. On average, a full-time worker loses $10,000 a year in lost income; for part-time workers, the figure is $7500.

Industry Super Australia estimates that one-third of workers are being underpaid superannuation, which amounts to 2.4 million workers having $3.6 billion stolen from them annually.

With only two months until the Victorian state election, we need to make sure that an incoming Labor government jails bosses who commit wage theft.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews already announced at the Labor state conference in May that: “Whether you’re a convenience store chain or a celebrity chef, if you deliberately and dishonestly underpay your workers, if you deny or deprive them of what is rightfully theirs, you will face jail.”

Employers who steal wages could face 10 years in jail and up to $950,000 in fines under proposed new laws. Andrews also promised to expedite the process of wage recovery and make it cheaper for workers to take this path.

For its part, the trade union movement is going to make certain that an incoming Andrews government remains true to its word because, as workers, we are sick and tired of being ripped off.  We are sick of overtime being described as “volunteer work” and being told that working through breaks is a sign of “commitment” to our job.

I’ve seen too many cases of bosses raking in profits at the expense of workers’ overtime pay or shift allowances.

At Geelong Trades Hall, we get regular complaints, especially from casual or young workers who are often the most exploited.

Wage theft is rife in retail and hospitality, where you see a lot of intimidation and where workers are often too scared to speak up. Wage theft and bullying almost always go hand in hand — and it’s not on.

So let’s put the bosses on notice and make sure they know that the cost for committing the crime of wage theft will be hefty. 

We will pursue wage theft with vigour and ensure that union members are treated properly while we rebuild union membership and strength.

[Colin Vernon is secretary of Geelong Trades Hall Council.]

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